In his previous big-screen endeavors, director Matt Reeves worked with plenty of fantastical creatures — including the barely glimpsed monster in Cloverfield and the unusual vampire at the center of Let Me In — but he’s never faced a challenge quite like the one presented by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Reeves inherited the franchise from director Rupert Wyatt, who made 2011’s well-regarded reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Dawn has even more ape action than its Oscar-nominated predecessor and dozens of simian creatures onscreen at any moment as its titular creatures create their own post-apocalyptic civilization and ward off a human threat. Still, the true triumph of this assured sequel is how convincing Reeves makes Dawn seem, with plenty of help from special effects company WETA and actor Andy Serkis (who plays the main ape, Caesar). Reeves talked to Vulture about how they pulled it all off.
Even though this is a sequel to Rise, it feels like it’s really part one of a new series, since the setting is entirely different and you’ve got several new human leads. Did you see that as a challenge or an opportunity?
I definitely saw it as an opportunity. In a weird way, if you look at all the Apes movies, they all seem like different stories in the same universe. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is definitely a continuation, but the other ones jump all around chronologically. What I loved about Rise was that it was a whole new point of entry into a universe that I was already so well aware of from my childhood, and yet at the end, it was implying a story that would come after it that wouldn’t have much continuity, except for the idea that Caesar would be at the center. So it was an opportunity to do something really different.
What did you want to retain from Rise, and what was important to change up?
I wanted to keep the focus on Caesar. It’s almost the secret of Rise, that the movie ends up being from the ape point of view, and I wanted it not to be the secret of this movie. I wanted to declare from the beginning that this was Caesar and the apes’ movie, and that they would share the movie with the humans. I also wanted there to be no real villains. In Rise, it’s kind of structured like a prison movie, where you’re waiting for the humans to get theirs at the end, and I didn’t quite want to do that. I wanted to explore the possibility that this could have become Planet of the Humans and the Apes instead of just Planet of the Apes, so I wanted there to be this hope of connection as well as this inexorable pull towards what we know the series becomes.
I’m most impressed by the film’s mastery of tone. There are some ideas and elements here that could be so crazy or campy in another movie …
Oh, like what?
I mean, there’s a shot of an ape with a machine gun riding a horse through fire in slow-mo. That sounds crazy on paper.
And it would seem crazy in any other movie, but it totally works here, where big moments like that are rousing and believable.
You know, I really wanted to focus on the reality of it. What I thought was remarkable about Rise is how they created this emotional identification with Caesar, how that was the highest level of connection I’ve ever had with a CG character, but where I thought they could push things further was in the photo-reality of things. I wanted us to shoot in real spaces; I wanted to shoot in the weather, in the elements, and for it to feel grounded. So really, even though some things sound crazy, we wanted to approach them in a way that didn’t feel tonally outlandish. It may sound absurd to say that you’re looking for reality in a movie about talking apes, but that’s what we were trying to do.
The effects look astoundingly real, even more so than in the last movie.
I think this is a high watermark for WETA for photorealism in performance capture. No one has tried to push it as far as we did on this film. The thing about it is that they’ve done amazing work for years, and they’d been doing cutting-edge, amazing work every time, but this particular goal was actually something that hasn’t been asked of them before this film. Avatar was incredible and totally groundbreaking, but it wasn’t about utter realism. It had a great mythic fantasy to it, but the characters don’t seem totally photo-real, as amazing as they are. And that was also true of Peter Jackson’s approach — I mean, Lord of the Rings has a kind of beautiful, amazing, stylized quality, but I wanted this movie to feel almost mundane. So that was another muscle for WETA to flex.
Normally, you’d cast a role by bringing in actors of a certain physical type, but for all the new actors like Judy Greer and Toby Kebbell, whom you’ve brought on to play motion-capture apes, was their look something that ceased to matter?
The look is totally immaterial. What does matter is the emotional commitment. People consider what Andy and the other mo-cap actors do to be a technical skill, but it isn’t, really. Motion capture is a piece of equipment that records what the actors do, and the most technical part of it is that they have to move like apes, which is akin to playing someone who walks with a limp. The most critical part of casting the apes was just finding an actor who could embody the essence of that character. I feel like people keep saying, “Oh, Andy is a master of mo-cap,” but that’s mostly because he’s a masterful actor. When we were trying to cast the actors around him, I think there was a feeling up till now that you’d use a lot of stunt people, people who might not embody the inner lives of the characters as deeply as Andy did. This time, we knew that the new actors coming in, like Toby and Judy Greer, could play those characters emotionally — the other part of it, though, was the motion-capture part, and that was all about them spending time with Terry Notary, who plays Rocket but is also our motion specialist. He’s a former Cirque du Soleil performer and he really taught all of our actors how to undo their human conditioning to just live in the moment as apes.
There are some pretty incredible ape movements in this film, though. They swing through trees during action sequences in ways that are far more ambitious than anything from the last movie.
On Rise, there were stunt performers who played apes, but when the characters had to do things that even those stuntmen couldn’t do — like swing as apes from incredible heights — then WETA would essentially get someone to animate it, instead of basing it on the movement of an actual human being like the rest of the performance was. The problem is that an artist’s hand, as wonderful and amazing as it is, can never quite draw the same gravity, so it would take on, for lack of a better term, almost this Spider-Man quality: [The movement looked] elastic and lighter than air. So there was a decision on this one that we actually would find stuntmen who could do those things, which meant hiring parkour performers.
One of whom, Nick Thurston, was actually cast as Caesar’s son Blue Eyes.
It just so happened when we were seeing all these parkour performers, Nick came in. He ended up playing not only Blue Eyes but a number of other apes in other circumstances, and I can’t even tell you how many other apes Terry played. At any moment, I might say, “Terry, I need this ape in the background who’s really angry,” and Terry will just jump in to play a gorilla. I wanted the movie to be very much about family, so Terry actually trained his daughters to quadruped on those arm extensions so that we could have young apes! They would jump onto his back so I could have toddlers and babies on shoulders, because I wanted you to be aware even when these characters were in the background that this was what was at stake, that Caesar had created this kingdom that was actually a large extended family. We even did some stuff involving my son and my visual effects supervisor’s son, who were toddlers when we started shooting: They’re featured as apes at the beginning of the movie, when you see Maurice teaching them the alphabet. It’s so exciting to be able to get at something authentic while, at the same time, you’re not bound by people’s appearances.